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Exploring ecosocialism as a system of thought

EnvironmentSocial MovementsSocialism

Illustration by Galen Johnson

A few years ago I came across a document called “The Ecosocialist Manifesto.” It had been co-authored in 2001 by Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy. I contacted Joel and arranged for him to write a piece on ecosocialism for Canadian Dimension. That article appeared in the November/December 2007 issue of CD. The cover of that issue reads “Capitalism vs. The Earth: The Ecosocialist Alternative.”

Since then I have been immersing myself on the literature of ecosocialism – elements of which I had first read many years earlier. It didn’t take long to conclude that the single most important contribution to ecosocialism has come from U.S.-based Marxist economist, James O’Connor.

It was in 1988 that Jim and his partner Barbara Laurence founded the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. CNS brought together dozens of ecosocialists in several collectives around the world and sparked a vigorous intellectual discussion, which is still ongoing. Jim also acted as editor of a series of very important books for the Guilford Press. The series was titled Democracy and Ecology and included such titles as Is Capitalism Sustainable? Green Production, Minding Nature and The Greening of Marxism.

CSN is still being produced, now under the editorship of Joel Kovel. Ecosocialism also has a very active and excellent web site called Capitalism and Climate edited by Ian Angus.

The second contradiction of capitalism

“Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction,” O’Connor’s title article in the very first issue of CSN, has had an enormous influence in shaping ecosocialism as a system of thought. Sometimes reprinted as “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism,” the argument has put an enduring Marxist imprint on ecosocialism.

The first contradiction refers to capitalism’s tendency towards overproduction with its virtually unlimited capacity to produce compared to consumption which is constrained by competitive pressures on capital to cut costs by cutting wages and speeding up work (or, in Marx’s terms increasing the rate of exploitation).

O’Connor argues that capitalism suffers from a second contradiction arising from capital’s addiction to growth causing degradation or depletion of what Marx called “the conditions of production.” While O’Connor drew the concept from Marx, he also noted that “he [Marx] never dreamed that the concept would or could be used in the way that I will use it in this chapter and no one could have used the concept in this way until the appearance of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.”

Now, it turns out that I was very well acquainted with The Great Transformation. I can say that without a doubt it had the biggest impact on me by far of any book I had read throughout my undergraduate education. And I still regard it as among the most important works published in the twentieth century.

In this rich passage, talking about how the market treats land and labour as if they were mere commodities, Polanyi wrote:

To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment … would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity “labour power” cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity … . Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure … . Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighbourhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, … the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed.

In his treatment, Marx listed three conditions of production:

  • “physical conditions” or the natural elements entering into production – like soil, air and water quality, fuel and other raw materials and in today’s terms climate change, ozone levels, stability of coastlines, etc ;
  • “personal conditions of production” or the physical and mental capacities of workers and the conditions of their work – like labour skills and occupational health and safety;
  • “the communal conditions of production” or publicly provided infrastructural and space dimensions of production – like roads, transportation and communication, etc.

By the “second contradiction of capitalism,” then, O’Connor means that capital accumulation can be jeopardized by so fouling the natural conditions of production that it totally breaks down – the likely effect of climate change; or by raising the cost of production arising from increasingly depleted raw materials and from the need to invent and develop substitutes; or by the state being forced to allocate increasing amounts of resources for improved health and safety provisions, for restoring ruined soil and forests, polluted lakes, rivers and oceans and shore lines.

Capital can’t prevent itself from impairing its own conditions because it arises from capital’s incessant need to grow. This is of course Marx’s first law of capital accumulation: “accumulate, accumulate, that is the Moses and the prophets.” Capital has no choice. Only continuous growth allows businesses to survive the competition for market share and profit.

These tendencies have been analyzed in considerable depth beginning in the 1960s. Erich Fromm and Andre Gorz held that consumer satisfaction, which serves as the main ideological justification of economic growth, arises from our alienation from work and community. We may want good work and decent communities but we learn to need only more consumer goods. As Fromm put it “under capitalism man is transformed into a homo consumens who tries to compensate for this inner emptiness by continuous and ever-increasing consumption.” Or, in Gorz’s words, the corporation does not simply sell consumer goods. It sells means of distraction, “means of dreaming that one is human – because there is no chance of actually becoming such.”

Gorz further elaborated on how capitalism avoided the saturation of markets by designing products with built-in obsolescence – reducing the durability of appliances to a half dozen years, for example; by introducing throw away products; by filling our heads with new wants, thereby generating relative scarcities and new dissatisfactions.

In an essay he wrote in 1973 aptly titled “Affluence Dooms Itself,” Gorz presciently described how capital accumulation impairs the natural conditions of production – cutting down the Amazon forest, the regenerative source of a quarter of the oxygen in our planet’s air; how it exhausts the supply of clean drinking water, forcing cities to haul in water from thousands of miles away; how it kills off marine life; and disables a large portion of the workforce through injury (one in six French workers). In “Ecology and the Crisis of Capitalism” (1975), he again talked about the barriers to capital accumulation arising from capital’s inability to repair or reproduce its material conditions – the availability of land in heavily populated cities, air, water, natural fertility of the soil, forests, fisheries, energy, and increasing numbers of depleted raw materials.

Around the same time, the American biologist, Barry Commoner described in detail how, in the first years after WWII, capital systematically switched to more profitable – but more polluting technologies, materials and processes that substituted cheap energy for labour: Detergents over soap, truck freight over railroad freight, aluminum, plastics, and cement over lumber and steel. A year or so after it appeared, I wrote this comment on Commoner’s treatment in his Closing of the Circle:

The fouling of the air, land or water, the disposal of waste materials, and the disappearance of non-renewable resources are costs that are seldom borne by the enterprises that produce them. They are passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices, passed back to workers in the form of shorter lives lived due to radiation, mercury or DDT exposure; higher laundry bills due to soot; higher costs of recreation due to pollution of nearby lakes, etc. And they are passed onto future generations. They comprise a massive subsidization by society and by nature to private enterprise.

This is what the economist K William Kapp meant when he wrote in 1972 that “capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs.” This is just a smattering of the works from twenty-five and thirty-five years ago that have been absorbed in ecosocialist analysis.

Why capitalism can’t solve the problem

John Bellamy Foster

We know that capitalism has shown itself to be enormously resilient, adaptable and flexible. It has already introduced countervailing measures to blunt the degradation of the conditions of production. Capital is producing so-called green commodities like fuel-efficient cars and it has invented all manner of anti-pollution devices. The state has brought in measures to recycle and conserve resources and to subsidize the development of renewable energy resources, to regulate the use of certain toxic products like pesticides, to increase emission standards for automobiles, to impose a tax on carbons and to create a market for carbon offsets.

Some of these measures will no doubt have effect, even if only in the short term. Ecosocialists like Ian Angus, John Bellamy Foster and Patrick Bond among others have written that their effect is necessarily limited by the fact that capital will not permit reform measures that unduly impair its profit. This is why the emphasis is on technological and market-based solutions. Technological solutions include carbon capture and sequestration and geo-engineering schemes (injecting huge quantities of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to block a portion of the incoming sunlight). Market-based solutions aim to nudge business and consumer behaviour in an environmentally friendly direction, convincing individuals to change their bad habits and promoting devices like carbon offsets that allow corporations to make money out of reducing emissions.

To elaborate, capitalism treats nature as a free resource. But since resources are limited, continuous growth eventually results in depletion, species extinction, toxic radioactive waste, contamination of water resources, destruction of forests, climate change. Finally acknowledged by mainstream economists, their solution, now widely accepted by most environmentalists and policy makers is to put a price on pollution, to further commodify nature.

But consider. A recent united Nations study found that the world’s 3000 largest corporations cause US$2.2 trillion in environmental damage every year, more than half attributed to greenhouse gas emissions. What would happen if full eco-prices were superimposed by way, say of carbon taxes, i.e. taxes sufficient to cover the cost of cleaning up pollution produced by each commodity; putting the recyclable parts of each of them back into circulation; developing substitute sources for depleted materials; restoring the ecosystems damaged by each commodity, including health and injuries to humans – think automobiles? Wherever possible, firms would, of course, pass the cost onto consumers or back onto workers in the form of lower wages and salaries. Taxes of this order, likely doubling or more the prices of most commodities, would clearly impact unevenly on the population, further widening disparities. Some firms would go bankrupt. So compatibility with the requirements of the capitalist system obviously imposes strict limits on the results that market-based measures can produce.

The new environmental proletariat

O’Connor believes that just as labour exploitation threw up working class movements that fought to constrain capital’s werewolf’s tendency to consume workers in its quest for profits, capital’s recklessness with nature leads to a “rebellion of nature” as “powerful social movements demand an end to ecological exploitation.”

Following O’Connor’s thinking, the outcome of the second contradiction will depend a great deal on the strength of these movements to force capital to fully confront the impairment of production conditions and then block it from shifting its costs onto the working class, farmers and indigenous peoples.

Further, the outcome of capital failing to stop world temperatures from reaching the tipping point beyond which all manner of natural disasters would befall the planet, also depends on the strength of the social movements. This of course is the starting off point to create a global ecosocial movement.

In 1998 in what is likely one of the last things he wrote on the subject, James O’Connor raised the question: Is it possible to organize an international red-green movement – a coordinated response to global capital – to institute new democratic, ecologically rational ways of life.

Victor Wallis

Ten years later, as if to answer, Joel Kovel declared “global warming puts the entire history and the pre-history as well, of industrial capital, into the dock. In a word: a moment for the global realization of ecosocialism has arrived.”

More recently still, Victor Wallis, editor of the publication Socialism and Democracy, has argued that it is among the peasants and indigenous peoples of the global South that “the most radical expressions of environmental awareness” has arisen. “For these populations capitalist plunder of the environment … is a direct assault on their homes and livelihoods.” Moreover, their occupation of the land and direct ties to its long-term sustainability places them in a strong strategic position. “Their own ‘parochial needs,’ writes Wallis, “embody the collective needs of the entire human species – not to mention other endangered life forms – to stop the relentless destruction of the ecosphere… . Although such peoples are among the world’s poorest, they have been thrust into a vanguard position.”

In a similar vein, John Foster Bellamy, the most prolific of contemporary ecologists, writes: “Today, the ecological frontline is arguably to be found in the inhabitants of the Ganges-Brahmaputa Delta and of the low-lying fertile coast area of the Indian Ocean and China Seas – the state of Kerala in India, Thai- land, Vietnam, Indonesia. They too, as in the case of Marx’s proletariat, have nothing to lose from the radical changes necessary to avert (or adapt to) disaster… . This, then, potentially constitutes the global epicenter of the new environmental proletariat.”

This analysis got some confirmation when, in April 2010, more than 35,000 people from 140 countries gathered in Bolivia and developed the historic Cochabamba People’s Agreement. (See the article by Terisa Turner in this issue of CD.)

As for the advanced capitalist world, scientist and environmental activist Chris Williams writes that to create mass campaigns against climate change, workers and environmental activists need to build bonds of solidarity in smaller struggles for more immediate needs. “With the right kind of pressure from a revitalized, environmentally conscious workers’ movement, we can make sure that there will be no shortage of jobs available to manufacture and lay train track, build and deploy wind turbines, and solar panels, retrofit commercial, residential and industrial buildings for energy efficiency and upgrade the dilapidated sewage system and antiquated electrical grid.” John Bellamy Foster adds that the most hopeful development within the advanced capitalist world is the “meteoric rise of the youth-based climate justice movement.”

The ecological revolution

While matters of ecology have local, regional and nation-wide dimensions, such political boundaries are often irrelevant to environmental devastation. In instances like the tar sands, the BP Gulf oil spill, the swamping of small island Pacific Ocean states etc. the whole world has a legitimate interest in what a government or corporation does or does not do within any country. Just as was done to stop the Vietnam War, South African apartheid and the assault against Gaza, it is required of environmentalists everywhere to intervene to make ecological disasters-in-the-making international concerns that supersede national sovereignty.

To answer the threat of extermination brought on by environmental change, Foster calls for a long-term global strategy of “ecological revolution.” He adds that “there can be no true ecological revolution that is not socialist; no true socialist revolution that is not ecological.” The two are inseparable and provide essential content for each other.

The ecosocialist mode of production

More than anyone else, Joel Kovel has given us an outline of the ecosocialist society and how to get there. I regard his book The Enemy of Nature as the most important work yet published in this century.

According to Kovel, ecosocialism is a society whose mode of production is one where production is carried out by “freely associated labour” with consciously ecocentric means and ends.

Joel Kovel

“Freely associated labour” is the single most important requirement of Marx’s concept of socialism since the sine qua non of capital, its defining feature, is the commodification of labour power, its purchase and sale for the purpose expanding profit.

“Freely associated labour” is of course not the same thing as public ownership – the customary definition of socialism. It involves workers directly involved in on-the-job production decisions together with other workers in a democratically functioning public sphere.

A society of freely associated labour is essential to ecosocialism, says Kovel, because it breaks the hold of capital (over the means of production) and its addiction to growth. It is also essential because it is the only way of ensuring that the process of production can be satisfying and pleasurable for workers – in the same way as the end of production is satisfying and pleasurable for consumers. This is one of features of ecocentric production. Another is a movement towards craftmanship i.e. more labour intensive production methods, where possible, as one way of reducing dependency on fossil fuels. Other ways include making use of all forms of conservation and replacing fossil fuels by renewable sources of energy – water, wind and sun. Solar energy, in particular, which has never aroused much interest among capitalists because they haven’t found a way to make profit from it – must be intensely researched and developed as the key source of energy. New technology would no longer be regulated by considerations of profit, but to the needs of ecocentric production and the human ecosystem.

“Limits to growth” in an ecocentric society is predicated on a reorientation of human need towards needs not dependent on destabilizing inputs of energy. “What is perceived as necessary” will evolve in a society freed from forcible indoctrination and consumerist addictions. Another dimension of the ecosocialist mode of production is the importance of supply security, of self-reliance wherever feasible and therefore of decentralized energy generation – the opposite of economies of scale, so much part of the capitalist mode of production.

In a sparkling essay in Socialist Register’s superb 2007 volume Coming to Terms With Nature, Michael Lowy adds that to meet the requirement of social justice and to assure essential working class support for this project, the ecosocialist society must provide full and equitable employment. And this, he argues, “is impossible without public control over the means of production and planning.”

Socialists take note

While Kovel’s ecosocialism is clearly socialist, he wants to clearly say that most socialists, even today, in the midst of a global crisis of nature, still position nature as an afterthought:

Both in the sense that nature does not come immediately to the socialist mind, as well as that caring for nature is something added onto existing socialist doctrine rather than integral to it. An integral appreciation of nature’s intrinsic value is not at the existential heart of socialism, nor does nature command a passion comparable to that reserved for the emancipation of labour. This is accompanied by a somewhat naive faith in the ecocentric capacities of a working class defined by generations of capitalist production. To the characteristically socialist way of thinking, labour, once freed from the prison-house of capital, will unproblematically proceed to rearrange production in an ecologically sane way.

Overcoming the limits of actually existing socialism, writes Kovel, requires a synthesis in which the wounds of nature “must be felt with the same passion for justice as those of the other [labour].”

The ecosocialist project

Kovel acknowledges that revolutions become a feasible possibility only when a people decide that their present social arrangements are intolerable, when they clearly identify the forces that are making it so, believe that they can achieve a better alternative, and when the balance of forces begins to be tipped in their favour. And he recognizes that none of these conditions are close to being met at the present time. Yet he insists, and I agree with him, that the ecosocialist revolution could well be on the agenda in the near future.

For as he says “global warming puts the entire history of industrial capitalism into the dock” and “the leading culprits are in full view: the whole petro- apparatus, from the pushers of ‘automibilia’ to the imperial apparatus that wages endless war to keep the carbon flowing from the ground, where it belongs, to the atmosphere, where it will destroy us.”

And it has been clear for a while now that these interests and the states that exist to protect them, will not take the measures necessary to bring down carbon emissions by the 90 percent by 2030 that best opinion holds is necessary to evade the fatal scenario of runaway global warming. As it becomes clear that industrial capitalism is the source of the problem and cannot solve it, the moment for the ecosocialist project will have arrived.

But capitalism has its solution to ecocatastrophe. It’s called fascism and Kovel talks about how it could emerge, for example, over the issue of immigration as millions of people are forced to flee the disastrous conditions wrought by flooding, drought, forest fires and other consequences of runaway global warming. While the ecofascist movement today is, like our own, very small, it has the potential to grow very rapidly, especially in combination with religious fundamentalism.

This only adds to the urgency of building the ecosocialist project. Kovel notes that there are many signs of this project. They include political struggles to build public works like public transit that reduce dependence on petroleum; getting rid of subsidies for fossil fuel extraction; demanding a moratorium on ecologically destructive energy sources like extraction from tar sands; stopping airport expansion and superhighway construction; campaigns to stop the privatization of water and to preserve old growth forests; resisting the intrusion of industries that destroy the capacity of indigenous peoples to subsist on the land and lakes and rivers; promoting conservation, renewable energy and high efficiency automobiles, heating systems and appliances; and constructing autonomous zones of ecocentric production (community gardens, worker and community cooperatives, indymedia projects, etc.). As he says, these and similar measures are reforms, but essential ones that slow the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere and gain time for more radical measures to take hold.

The Ecosocialist Party

Each of these struggles and projects point us towards ecosocialism says Kovel, but “only a party-like formation which postulates a goal common to all [these] struggles without constraining them from above can organize this into ‘solidarity solidified’ and press towards power.”

Kovel has some suggestions for the ecosocialist party.

  • “Though open to individuals, the ecosocialist party should be grounded in communities of resistance/ production. Delegations from such communities will supply the cadre of party activists as such, and the assembly that is its strategic and deliberative body.”
  • To ensure that its participants are not merely lily-white, the party needs to be “as firmly rooted in overcoming racism as it is in environmental mending. The two themes intersect directly in the environmental justice movement, grounded in the defense against capitalist penetration and pollution by communities of color, and often led by women, hence ecofeminist as well as ecosocialist and drawn into the campaign against petro-capital.”
  • Though targetting national and regional/local states as the ultimate protectors of capital, the ecosocialist party will participate in the building of a global movement towards a new carbon economy.

I conclude this survey with Joel Kovel’s opening words in a July 2010 letter to members of the Ecosocialist International Network:

There is nothing that has happened over the last decade that has disabused me of the conviction that ecosocialism is the most important idea before humanity and will remain so whether it succeeds or fails in being realized. However if it fails, so do we as a species. There is no need to elaborate here the dire circumstances of the ecological crisis spawned by the capitalist system, which generates the need for the response of ecosocialism.

Further Reading:

  • Angus, Ian, editor. The Global Fight for Climate Justice. Halifax: Fernwood, 2010.
  • Bellamy Foster, John. “Why Ecological Revolution?” Monthly Review (January), 2010.
  • Gorz, Andre. Ecology As Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1980.
  • Kovel, Joel. The Enemy of Nature. New York/Halifax: Zed Books/Fernwood, 2007.
  • O’Connor, James. Natural Causes, Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford 1998.
  • Panitch, Leo and Colin Leys editors. Coming to Terms with Nature, Socialist Register 2007, New York/Halifax: Monthly Review Press/ Fernwood, 2006.
  • Wallis, Victor. “Beyond Green Capitalism.” Monthly Review (February), 2010.
  • Climate and Capitalism

Cy Gonick is the founding editor of Canadian Dimension.

This article appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension (Ecosocialism).


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